Confronting Whiteness as the Risen Body of Jesus

The U.S. Catholic Church, Joseph Flipper writes, “is shaped by, and continues to operate out of, a matrix of whiteness.”

As a result, the church’s identity and mission are distorted by its normative whiteness—as well as the violence of white supremacy and settler colonialism that white members of the church inflict against Black persons, Indigenous persons, Latinx persons, and other persons of color both within and beyond its communion. I propose that recalling the church’s prophetic identity as a sacrament of the Risen Body of Jesus of Nazareth[1] offers some insight into how the church might begin to renounce its whiteness and, in turn, live as church in a new way.

The Church as a Sacrament of the Risen Body of Jesus

In her interpretation of the Johannine Resurrection Narrative (JRN), Sandra Schneiders argues that the church is called to live as a sacrament of the Risen Body of Jesus of Nazareth. As the Risen Jesus returns to his disciples, they are called to share in his life by cooperating with the Spirit’s initiative to transform creation toward its fulfillment in the life of God, just as Jesus did during his ministry. Through this work, he is “body-forthed” in and through his disciples. The Wisdom eschatological framework that underlies the JRN maintains that, in death, a person shares in the fullness of the life she had lived before death. Therefore, Jesus’ return to disciples through the Spirit, in the fullness of God’s glory, suggests that the life he lived up to and through his death—and how he lived it—had incarnated the divine life into which God summons all creation.

Jesus undertook his ministry in the tradition of the prophets of the Hebrew Bible. As Bradford Hinze argues, these prophets responded to God’s invitation to share in a life of salvific communion heard in the laments of those who had been pushed to the margins by those in power. Joining their voice to the laments of the marginalized, prophets denounced the unjust systems that marked their time. Moreover, they called people to a way of life that embodied God’s love, in part, by repairing the harm done by those systems so that authentic communion might be realized. This was the way of life through which Jesus cooperated with God’s invitation to make the justice of God’s reign known in word and deed. This would suggest, then, that the church’s summons to share in Jesus’ life by living a sacrament of his risen body is also a summons to share in his prophetic ministry.

Crucially, prophets not only announce God’s vision of salvation but also embody it in their very person and their way of life. This summons, however, raises a dilemma when the church is, itself, an agent of marginalization. How is the church called to amend its ways and live into its identity as a sacrament of the risen Body of Jesus when it becomes an agent of marginalization in the world and within its own communion? My argument is that that those who, within the church, who are the recipients of privilege because of the violent marginalization of others must, first, listen to the laments of those who have been marginalized if the church is going to discern, collectively, how to live in a new way. Therefore, those in the church who are white must listen to those whom they have cast to the margins through their participation in whiteness. Only then might white Christians be confronted with the ways their whiteness stands in contrast to the Gospel. Only then can white Catholics begin to discern how to divest themselves of the whiteness that prevents the church from living into its truest identity.

Whiteness as a Bias

The historic failure of the U.S. Catholic Church to recognize the full humanity of Black persons, Indigenous persons, Latinx persons, and other persons and communities of color has been well documented by historians and theologians including Cyprian Davis, Timothy Matovina, Roberto Goizueta, Shannen Dee Williams, George “Tink” Tinker, Albert Raboteau, and Emma Anderson among many others. As they have demonstrated, white Catholics often not only failed to oppose slavery, lynching, setter colonialism, Jim Crow, and the genocidal extermination of Indigenous communities but also actively participated in them. Moreover, as each of these scholars notes, it would be wrong to think of these failures as a problem of the past. The laments of persons and communities who continue to be marginalized by white Catholics and the normative whiteness of the Catholic Church they fight to maintain testify to that fact.[2]

Sr. Thea Bowman, 1989

In November 1989, Thea Bowman, a Black, Franciscan sister, described the historical and ongoing oppression of Black Catholics to the U.S. Bishops. She lamented, “To be Black and Catholic still…often feels like being a second- or third-class citizen of the holy city.” She challenged the bishops to accept Black Catholics—with their unique history, spirituality, and charismatic gifts—as gifts to the church in their Blackness. And she declared that as long as Black Catholics are dismissed by white Catholics as superfluous or even un-Catholic, because they are not white, the church will fail to live into its identity as the Body of Christ. Her witness captured the laments of the Black Catholic Clergy Caucus and the National Black Sisters’ Conference voiced two decades earlier, naming the Catholic Church a “white racist institution.” Moreover, her witness is consistent with the laments of many Black Catholic theologians, like LaReine-Marie Mosely who compares the experience of being Black and Catholic to not being recognized by her mother suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.

Recently, some white U.S. Catholics have claimed that the church can move beyond its history of racial oppression by striving to live as a multicultural church. Yet, as Orlando Espín and M. Shawn Copeland argue, although multiculturality nominally celebrates cultural diversity, it has been used to maintain white cultural dominance.  Espín writes, “The quest for equality and inclusiveness assumes that there is an already established reality to which others are now welcome. … [It] is a mechanism to co-opt the dominated into accepting as most real the social constructs and meaning of the dominant.” Similarly, Copeland notes that diversity and difference are too often restricted and suppressed in the name of a pre-determined uniformity.

Copeland argues that the experiences of exclusion and pain that give rise to laments like those noted above stem from the fact that the U.S. Catholic Church is marked by what she names “white racist supremacy.” She writes, “White racist supremacy as an ideology and societal process secures the power of white people as a social group over all other groups of people and, as a by-product of this historical, cultural, and societal dominance, ensure certain benefits and privileges to (most) whites as individuals.” As Bryan Massingale demonstrates, this is a cultural reality that shapes the lived experience of both the church and the wider U.S. society. It is maintained by white people in order preserve the inequitable distribution of society’s benefits and burdens in ways that benefit and privilege those who are considered white. And, as theologians including Willie James Jennings, Kelly Brown Douglas, and Jeannine Hill Fletcher have noted, this cultural reality is rooted in the thought and actions of white Christians and white Christian churches.

Jennings identifies the roots of white racist supremacy in supersessionism, the false Christian conviction that the Christian church has replaced (or superseded) biblical Israel as God’s chosen people. This led European settler-colonizers to read themselves into stories from the Hebrew Bible. They viewed themselves as God’s chosen people settling a promised land and therefore mandated to dispossess inhabitants of the land they encountered and their ways of life tied to the land. Thus, whiteness “grew from Christian colonial settlers who arrived in the new world convinced that God had given the world to them and that their fundamental task was to bring the new world and its inhabitants to ‘civilization,’ to maturity of mind, body, and Christian spirit, of land and living, of behavior, and of architecture. This is the essence of whiteness: to form the new world to look and act just like them.” Whiteness, then, should not be thought of “as phenotype, as bodily characteristics, [or] even as European heritage.” Moreover, it is not a stable category. Groups of people, once not considered white, become white when they are properly conformed to this vision so-called maturity. As Flipper notes, whiteness racializes the other—anyone who does not fit the vision of maturity and civilization born in the European colonial era. It usurps the ways of being and living in relationship to land, animals, and natural resources that have sustained peoples through millennia because those ways of being do not fit into the distortion of maturity that is whiteness. And it turns those animals and resources—and, more often than not, the racialized other—into capital that creates and “reinforces dominance and marginalization” of the other.

Whiteness and the supersessionism from which it flows represent what Bernard Lonergan calls a bias. Drawing on Lonergan, Copeland writes that bias is “the more or less conscious and deliberate choice, in light of what we perceive as a potential threat to our well-being, to exclude further information or data from consideration in our understanding, judgment, discernment, decision, and action.” It is the refusal of corrective insight; it is the more or less conscious choice to be wrong. Jennings’ work suggests that the corrective insight refused is a recognition of the Christian church’s Gentile identity. He argues that the church, a Gentile community, does not replace biblical Israel as God’s chosen people. Rather through God’s self-revelation in the Jewish prophet Jesus of Nazareth, Gentiles are woven into God’s salvific communion of kinship.

Living as the Crucified and Risen Body of Jesus

In addition to summoning the church to live as a sacrament of the Risen Body of Jesus, the JRN points to another critical element of resurrection faith: The Risen Body of Jesus remains the Crucified Body of Jesus. As Roberto Goizueta notes, the church must confront the wounds that mark Jesus’ crucified and risen body if it is going to take up his mission, especially as they inflicted on the church by its own way of being. To deny the crucified is to deny Christ. Jaime Phelps suggests that, if the church is going to embody a communion of God’s love, those members responsible for the wounds inflicted on its body must be indicted by them and respond to them.

The Risen Body of Jesus is marked by the wounds of whiteness and white racist supremacy. Within the church, those ways of being Christian—ways of embodying one’s life as a disciple in the ecclesial communion of the crucified and risen Jesus—that do not align with a white vision of maturity and civilization are pushed to the margins by white Christians. The persons who embody those ways of being and continue to find ways to express their Christian faith are told by white Christians that to be truly Christian—or truly Catholic—one must be white or, at the very least, accept white ways of being Christian. As Massingale argues, this has led to a situation where Western European aesthetics, music, theology, and bodies are universally and normatively sacred and anything else is not.

If the church is going to live into its identity as a sacrament of the Risen Body of Jesus by attending to the bias of whiteness, white members of the church, who for centuries have been both agents and beneficiaries of racialization, colonization, and marginalization, must unsettle themselves and their normative whiteness. My aim at the end of this essay is not to prescribe how white Christians, like me, might do this but to state what must happen first. We must attend to the voice of the Spirit heard in the laments of those whom we have marginalized so that we recognize that we must be unsettled and decentered. How that decentering happens must be discerned by continuing to listen to the laments and witness of our sisters and brothers whom we continue to push to the margins of ecclesial existence so that our whiteness is not inadvertently centered in the narrative a white savior.

The work unsettling the white settler imagination would, ideally, lead to an ecclesial space marked not by a white center and non-white peripheries but, to borrow an image from Pope Francis, a polyhedron whose many sides might reflect and refract the light of the Gospel in myriad ways. For instance, as Natalia Imperatori-Lee argues, Latinx popular religious practice might continue to nourish and sustain communities of faith in new base ecclesial communities or some form of the personal parishes permitted under Canon Law. Or, as Massingale argues, Black Catholics might find the space to live not just as “authentically black and truly Catholic,” a movement whose work he honors and celebrates while also noting how it was forced to operate within an ecclesial culture marked by normative whiteness, but as radically Black and authentically Catholic. He maintains that to be radically black and authentically Catholic is to be very Catholic in a Black way—to live into the tradition in a way that is rooted in one’s Black and African cultural and historical heritage and free from the constraints of white supremacist normativity. This might be realized, for instance, in the development of an African-American Catholic Rite, first proposed in the 1980s, not restrained by normative white liturgical expression.

The call of the JRN is for the church to live as a sacrament the Risen Body of Jesus—a body glorified in the reconciling love of God. If the church is going to live into this identity, it must attend to the wounds inflicted on its own body by its own whiteness so that, as in the JRN, its wounds might be not be sources of alienation but rather might be signs of God’s glory shining through vulnerable human flesh.

B. Kevin Brown is senior specialist for faculty and staff formation and adjunct instructor of religious studies at Gonzaga University. He has a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Boston College and an undergraduate and master’s degree from Loyola Marymount University. He is writing a manuscript for Liturgical Press on the theology of Sandra M. Schneiders, I.H.M. Kevin currently lives and works in Spokane, WA, on the unceded land of the Spokane Tribe.

Editor’s Note: This post is part of Daily Theology’s Symposium on Racism, White Supremacy, & the Church. Click here for more information or sign up for our email list below to be notified of new posts!

[1] I am deliberatively using the phrase “sacrament of the Risen Body of Jesus” in order to avoid the claim that the Risen Jesus is exclusively encountered in the church. As Andrew Prevot has noted, such exclusivist interpretations not only ignore how Jesus is encountered in the crucified peoples of the world but also have used to justify colonial domination. Andrew Prevot, “Mystical Bodies of Christ: Human, Crucified, and Beloved,” in Beyond the Doctrine of Man: Decolonial Visions of the Human, ed. Joseph Drexler-Dreis and Kristien Justaert (New York: Fordham University Press, 2020), 134–61.

[2] Due to the limits of space in this essay, I highlight only a few laments. These examples are not meant to be exhaustive. Rather they are meant to be illustrative of a larger phenomenon.